Overcoming Fears with Desensitization and Counterconditioning

By Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

For a more complete description of behavior modification, desensitization, counterconditioning, and response substitution see Introduction to Desensitization and Counterconditioning.

What are counterconditioning and desensitization? behavior_modification_implementing

Counterconditioning occurs when the pet’s reaction (emotional response) to a stimulus is changed from one that is anxious or fearful to one that is positive and enjoyable. To accomplish this, favored rewards should be paired with each exposure to the stimulus (e.g., person, pet, noise, or situation).

Desensitization is a technique of exposing the pet to a stimulus that would normally cause an undesirable reaction at an extremely low level so that there is no response. As the pet becomes less reactive, it is desensitized through exposure to gradually more intense levels of the stimulus. Finding this threshold and developing a gradient for exposure are the keys to successful desensitization.

Counterconditioning and desensitization are usually paired so that low-intensity stimuli are initially paired with high-level rewards, as described in the gradient sections below.

What are response substitution and controlled exposure?

Response substitution is when the behavioral response to a stimulus is changed to one that is desirable, or when the pet is taught a desirable behavior when exposed to the stimulus. Although this can be any behavior that is incompatible with the undesirable behavior (such as having your dog retrieve rather than jumping up or displaying uncontrollable elimination at greeting) it may be more practical to teach calm and settled responses, especially for pets that are extremely fearful or highly excitable and roused.

"Response substitution is when the behavioral response to a
stimulus is changed to one that is desirable."

The focus is on training behaviors that will earn the dog rewards rather than punishing undesirable behaviors, which may in fact serve to increase your dog’s fear and anxiety. To be successful the rewards must be sufficiently motivating and properly timed. Your dog must be taught to consistently and immediately exhibit the desired behavior in the absence of distractions, before proceeding to distractions (see  Getting Started, Aggression – Getting Started – Safety and Management, Teaching Calm – Settle and Relaxation Training, and (64) Teaching Loose Leash Walks, Backing Up, and Turning Away). Controlled exposure exercises or desensitization should be combined with response substitution so that your dog is first taught the desired behavior in situations of minimal arousal and minimal distractions before proceeding to gradually more intense levels of the stimulus. Head halter control can help to ensure safety and success (see might include:

  1. Distance: Begin desensitization from a distance and move progressively closer as the pet is successfully counter-conditioned.
  2. Volume: Play sound stimuli in varying intensities from quiet to loud.
  3. Movement/activity: Begin with the stimulus standing, before proceeding to walking slowly, jogging or running.
  4. Separating stimuli for exposure: With a problem such as fear of vacuum cleaners, several steps may be necessary. The pet may first need to be desensitized and counter-conditioned to the sight of the machine at decreasing distances, then to the sound of the machine at decreasing distances, then to the movement of the machine at decreasing distances and finally to the combined sight, sound and movement of the machine at varying distances. Similarly for pets fearful of cars (see Traveling – Air and Car Travel), the pet may need to be desensitized and counter-conditioned to entering the car, before turning on the engine, or before beginning any movement of the car.
  5. Characteristics/similarity: A pet that is fearful to very young children might be desensitized and counter-conditioned to older children, before progressing to gradually younger children. It may also be useful to vary the distance to the children.
  6. Familiarity: For pets that are fearful, anxious or behave inappropriately with strangers, you could begin exposure with family members, then to family friends, then to strangers. If a particular stimulus (bicycles, skateboards, men with beards, or people wearing hats or uniforms) causes the behavior, start training with known family members riding the bikes or skateboards or dressing in the fear evoking attire.
  7. Location: Begin in situations in which there is minimal anxiety and move to situations where the anxiety becomes more intense. When you are in locations where problems could arise, ensure that your desensitization and counterconditioning have been successful by exposing your dog to familiar situations or people before adding possible fear-evoking stimuli.

For desensitization and counterconditioning programs to be successful, it is necessary to have good control of the pet, a strongly motivating reward, good control over the stimulus, and a well-constructed desensitization gradient. For dogs, a leash and head halter is often the best way of ensuring control for exposure exercises (see Training Products – Head Halter Training and Training Products – Head Halter Training – Synopsis). A leash and body harness or a carrying cage might work to maintain a distance gradient for cats (see Behavior Management Products and Crate Training and Travel). Plan each session carefully, keep it short and always end with a success.

Pets that are punished for inappropriate behavior (fear, aggressive displays) during the retraining program will become more anxious in association with the stimulus. If the owner is fearful, anxious or frustrated this further adds to the pet’s anxiety. As mentioned, whenever a pet threatens a stimulus and the stimulus (person, other animal) retreats, the behavior is reinforced by its success. Therefore, you must find ways of avoiding interactions until you and your pet are properly prepared for exposure.

Where can desensitization and counterconditioning be utilized?

In any situation where your pet is fearful or anxious, use desensitization and counterconditioning to gradually accustom the pet to increasing levels of the stimulus, pairing each exposure with a favored reward. Therefore, whether your pet is fearful of noises (see Fears and Phobias – Animals and People, and Fears and Phobias – Inanimate Noises and Places, Fears and Phobias – Storms and Fireworks – Immediate Guidelines, Fears and Phobias – Storms and Fireworks – Treatment), flooring, steps, situations (see Veterinary Visits/Examinations – Desensitization/Reducing Fear), or handling (e.g., grooming, brushing, hugging, lifting), desensitization and counterconditioning can change the fearful or anxious mood into one that is positive.

Where can response substitution and controlled exposure be utilized?

In any situation where your pet is exhibiting a behavior that you find undesirable, the goal is to change the response to one that is desirable. Remember that while punishment may stop the undesirable behavior, it does not teach the pet how to behave in a desirable manner in future situations and may actually increase your pet’s fear.

Punishment may actually
increase your pet's fear.

With reward based training, the use of training aids such as clickers, targets or head halters, and the proper timing and use of rewards, it should be possible to first achieve the desirable response in the absence of distractions. When the desirable response can be consistently, reliably and immediately repeated, it should be possible to modify the environments and increase the distractions during training. At each level of success the favored rewards are given. Since the final step would be to get desirable outcomes in the situations in which problems arise, you should focus on the type of training that will be needed when actual exposures begin. Set up these situations so that you can insure success by controlling the stimulus, using commands that the pet understands, using favored rewards and using physical control devices such as a head halter if there is a chance that your dog may not immediately respond or focus. For example, for problems that arise outdoors such as barking, lunging, chasing or forging, it may be most effective to use a sit and focus, or back out and turn around (“let’s go”) command (see Chase Behaviors). For indoor problems such as jumping up, play biting, chewing or sleeping in inappropriate locations, sit and focus, down and settle, or a mat and place exercise might be most effective (see Teaching Calm – Settle and Relaxation Training and Aggression – Getting Started – Safety and Management). For some problems, such as dogs that will not give up or release toys and those that will not come on command, the drop/give or come commands may also be necessary.

Ending on a positive note

Despite the best of intentions, during exposure exercises there may be times when your pet gets too close to the stimulus to be effectively calmed or settled. While leaving the situations might be the most safe and practical approach, your dog’s anxiety may have been heightened and the behavior reinforced if the session has ended when your dog is fearful, overly excited or barking. In these cases it might be best to try and calm the dog before ending the session. This can be accomplished by having the dog back up a few steps to a level where it is no longer fearful using a back up command, or gently pulling on the head halter while the dog backs up to a sufficient distance where it is calm. Another alternative is to turn and walk in the other direction, while using a command such as “let’s go.” With a leash and head halter or a pull control body harness (which attaches at the chest) this can be quickly and effectively accomplished by calmly turning and walking in the other direction. Both commands can however, be taught on cue, so that they can be used during these exposure exercises with or without the aid of a head halter (see Training Products – Head Halter Training and Training Products – Head Halter Training – Synopsis). Once at a sufficient distance where your dog can be calmed, you can give a reward and end the session for the day.

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